National Geographic Photographer Jodi Cobb Reveals Secretive World of Human Trafficking Through Photographs


Jodi Cobb spoke about her life as a photographer for National Geographic yesterday at the Skirball Center.

Renowned National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb brought the taboo and secretive world of human trafficking to light through the lens of her camera during a speech at NYU last Wednesday.

“Twenty-seven million people are bought and sold against their will, held captive, brutalized, and exploited for profit,” said Cobb as she paused on a photograph she had taken of two Indian boys whose large eyes were peering out from behind the strings of a carpet loom, giving the impression of a cage. “There are more slaves in the world today than the entire four centuries of the African slave trade combined.”

Cobb said that the story, titled “21st Century Slaves,” and published in the September 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine, was her most important yet because she exposed an issue that no one was talking about.

Slavery is not legal anywhere, but all over the world including in Europe and the U.S. men, women and children are sold into the slave industry, which makes $150 billion annually, according to the anti-human trafficking campaign, “Not For Sale.” Cobb spent a year traveling to various countries photographing instances of slave labor, sex slavery, and child slavery.

“I got into photography because I wanted to change the world,” Cobb said. “This was the closest that I ever got.”

The story got the largest response in the history of National Geographic, according to Cobb. Thousands of people wrote to the magazine wanting to know how they could help.

“It was people who no longer think that prostitution is a victimless crime, or that buying things really cheap is as fun as they used to,” Cobb said. “They know now that someone makes that stuff. And there’s no cheaper labor than a slave.”

Even now, 12 years after the original story was published in National Geographic, Cobb’s photographs resonated with audience members.

“Photography can be utilized to spotlight these issues in society,” said NYU student Avi Glibicky, who attended the presentation and is an aspiring photographer. “It’s not just being a photographer, it’s having an impact.”

Showing photograph after photograph of humans in slavery, Cobb’s demeanor was calm and her voice soft. Her peaceful disposition unwavering, even as she showed a portrait she had taken of a notorious slave trafficker. She added that she feared for her life after she took his portrait because he was powerful enough to make people disappear.

“It took me a really long time to recover from the year I spent on this story,” Cobb said. “From having to seek out evil every day, and finding it.”

Her photos speak for themselves, but Cobb’s occasional interjection of facts and anecdotes made them come to life.

One photo showed a woman covered in red dust carrying a stack of at least 10 bricks on her head. Cobb explained that brick kiln owners in India lend money to people but charge huge interest rates so that they become indebted for years and can never escape working at the brick kilns.

“The heat was intense this day. It was 120 degrees and the added heat from baking bricks made it really hell on earth,” Cobb said, her words made more evident by the stark color contrast of the dusty red bricks and the blue sky in the photograph.

Cobb wanted to not only demonstrate the conditions that slaves were in, but also the reason they ended up being sold and trafficked. Showing a picture she had taken of a baby sleeping in a cardboard box on the street, Cobb explained that the child was at risk of being sold into the illegal adoption trade most likely because the parents needed money to survive.

“This picture symbolizes for me the kind of poverty that can cause parents to think of their own children as commodities to be bought and sold,” Cobb added.

May Hauer, a NYU student studying public relations, said she had attended all of the National Geographic Live presentations at NYU this semester, but that Cobb’s was the best because it brought up subjects that usually go unspoken.

“I know that it [human trafficking] exists, but I never really put a picture to what I’d heard,” Hauer said. “I guess I saw it, but I didn’t realize that it was there.”

Visualizing things that go unseen is Cobb’s specialty, which she demonstrated in her previous works that also gained a lot of attention, such as her photography of veiled women in Saudi Arabia and the secretive life of the Geishas in Japan.

Cobb also highlighted her work as an activist for women’s rights. She was the first woman to travel through China when it had been reopened to the Western world. She won many awards including several World Press awards, and her book “Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Cobb’s speech at NYU was held at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on April 8 as part of the National Geographic Live series.

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